Barak Takes Office Amid Murmurs from Labor Party Ranks

July 7, 2008 - 8:06 PM

Jerusalem (CNS) - Promising to work for an end to the "100-year conflict in the Middle East," Ehud Barak takes office as Israel's prime minister Tuesday after seven weeks of often-difficult talks aimed at forming a broad and supportive coalition.

He is due to be sworn in later today, after presenting his government to the Israeli parliament, the Knesset.

The lengthy coalition-building process ended with early signs of discontent inside Barak's Labor Party at the former army chief's style of decision-making and some appointment choices.

Barak suffered his first setback since the election Monday when Labor lawmakers voted in secret ballot to defeat his choice of an inexperienced loyalist as Knesset Speaker, in favor of a seasoned politician who has been critical of Barak before.

The vote, which is certain to be confirmed when the Knesset plenum elects a Speaker today, was described privately by Labor members as a "lesson and warning" to Barak.

Some of Barak's cabinet appointments have also drawn fire. Laborites feel they have ended up with scraps after Barak dished out portfolios to coalition partners.

Many are unhappy at the inclusion of just one woman, despite Barak's promise to have the highest-ever number of female ministers in his cabinet.

And the moderate religious faction Meimad, which joined Barak's Labor-led One Israel faction on the understanding it would receive a cabinet seat, has now been told this will not be the case and may withdraw from One Israel.

Conscious of these feelings, Barak said he would introduce legislation to increase the size of the cabinet beyond the maximum of 18 seats now permitted. Critics say this will merely waste public funds and lower efficiency levels.

Earlier, Barak told Labor lawmakers that it would be the new government's "responsibility to lead the country to peace and security," and that peacemaking would top his agenda.

"There is no goal in my opinion more central than this one - to strengthen Israel's security by ending the 100-year conflict in the Middle East," he said.

While Binyamin Netanyahu was ultimately brought down by critics on the right of his cabinet, Barak is likely to face pressures from the left.

His cabinet includes a dovish Foreign Minister; two of the key architects of the Oslo Accords, Shimon Peres and Yossi Beilin; two ministers from the left-wing Meretz bloc; and several other left-leaning members of Labor and other parties.

Most of these are politically to the left of Barak, who may find himself looking for balance from the sole National Religious Party member, Construction and Housing Minister Yitzhak Levy, and former Soviet dissident Nathan Sharansky, who has been named Interior Minister.

Barak has kept the Defense portfolio for himself, and has given Foreign Affairs to David Levy, who will be holding the position for the third time in his lengthy and at times tempestuous political career. Levy left the Netanyahu cabinet just 18 months ago, over peace and budgetary policy differences.

The third most senior position, Finance, has gone to Avraham Shohat, who held the post under the 1992-96 Labor government and, in the words of a leading Israeli commentator, "brought the economy to near disaster [and] now returns to the scene of his fiscal crimes."

Former prime minister and Nobel peace prize winner Peres received the newly-created Regional Development ministry, which he hopes will help him promote his peace agenda.

Barak spoke briefly to President Clinton by phone Monday, and the two agreed he would visit Washington within the next few weeks.

Barak told the president he plans to speak within the next few days to Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat, Jordan's King Abdallah, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

He has undertaken to push forward peace talks with the Palestinians, Syria and Lebanon.